The poverty of settler colonialism: Jerome Tharaud, ‘Western Salvage: Scarcity, Settler Colonialism, and Adaptation in Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow’, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 2021


Excerpt: Wallace Stegner is perhaps best known as a chronicler of the arid West. As he put it in his 1987 lecture “Living Dry,” “The West is defined … by inadequate rainfall, which means a general deficiency of water . . . . Aridity, and aridity alone, makes the various Wests one” (American West 6, 8). But if Stegner anticipated an environmental historian’s definition of the West as “a region of scarcity, where water sources are few and far between,” he also explored scarcity as a cultural condition (Worster, Under 31). From his ruminations on John Wesley Powell’s “homemade education” (Beyond 8) to his account of the “deprivation” of his own “frontier” upbringing (Wolf Willow 25, 23), Stegner mapped another geography of Western scarcity: information deserts where books are rare treasures; aging towns whose young people have left in search of opportunity; places where entire histories have eroded away, replaced by imported traditions. This essay examines that alternative geography through its most eloquent statement, Wolf Willow (1962). As Stegner reconstructs his family’s failed venture homesteading a borderland wheat farm and his formative experiences in the nearby town of “Whitemud” (his fictionalized name for Eastend, Saskatchewan), he illuminates the relationship between different forms of scarcity, the historical process that has produced them, and possible strategies for adapting to them. Wolf Willow thus offers an opportunity to reconsider not only the history of Western regionalism and its relationship to settler colonialism, but also the potential futures of the region—considered both as a particular geography and as a general concept—in an age of global climate crisis.

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